I must once more apologise to anyone waiting for things from me. I’m snowed under with writing commitments still, but I managed to discharge one of them today, and it’s one that some of you may be interested in. I’ve harped on about a lot of things since I started this blog several years ago, but perhaps the most mysterious of these has been the systematic philosophical methodology I’ve been working on, occasionally (and perhaps tantalisingly) referred to under the heading of ‘fundamental deontology’. I’ve said a little bit about it now and again (see here and here), but I’ve not gone so far as to really explain it in detail. This is largely because the ideas are complicated, and I haven’t had the time to do the work necessary to flesh them out.
However, the ideas have slowly built up over time, and I have now been handed the excuse I needed to work on it. My girlfriend is studying Chinese/English translation, and has asked me to provide her with a piece of work for a translation project. Despite my prodigious writings on here, I don’t have anything I consider either polished or accessible enough to warrant translation, so I have decided to write something with this purpose in mind. I’ve wanted to write a small book summarising my ideas about fundamental deontology for a while, but haven’t had the excuse. Now is the time.
Today I finished writing the outline of the book. Following the subtitle of the blog, its working title is: The Demands of Thought. It’s going to cover quite a lot of ground, but I hope it’ll still be concise. It’s also going to deal with some pretty abstract concepts, but I hope it’ll nonetheless be accessible. These are tough constraints to meet, but I think that it’s best to aim high and revise downward. Moreover, I hope that by posting the outline here I’ll tie myself to the project in such a way that I can’t extricate myself from it. I have too many ideas for projects like this, and at some point they need to be given a fixed form and pushed out into the world. So, please do hold me to this commitment! It’ll be good for me, even if I can already see myself regretting it. Also, if you happen to know somewhere that might fancy publishing it, do let me/them know!
The Demands of Thought
What should we think? What should we do? These are the fundamental questions that any kind of theorising engages with, and ultimately, they collapse back into theorising about theorising, which can only be called philosophy. Here we confront the timeless questions: What is Truth? and What is Goodness? The only way to think about these questions properly is to approach them by way of the difference between theoretical and practical reasoning, respectively. This is to say, by way of the difference between thinking as something we do, and thinking about what we do. In doing this, we must be very careful not to make any unwarranted assumptions about the nature of thought or action. This means making explicit the methodological assumptions we cannot but make in pursuing these questions.
So, what do we assume here? We aim to assume nothing but the fact that we can think, to some extent. This does not mean that we are capable of thinking well, simply that we think at all. The next assumption, implicit in this one, is that thinking is something that is done by us. Thinking is not only possible, but it is possible as an activity we can think about in the same terms we think about other activities. The last implicit assumption is that the principal aspect of this activity is reasoning. We will aim to make clear precisely what ‘reasoning’ is as we go on, and thus what the consequences of this assumption are. For now, we must accept that reasoning is a matter of giving and asking for reasons for what one thinks and what one does, or the justification of thought and action. The difference between these respective justificatory activities is just the difference between theoretical and practical reasoning discussed above.
Given these assumptions, we can see that the question of what we should think can be subsumed under the question of what we should do. It becomes a question of what thought demands of us. This is the topic of this book, and it must be pursued by considering the nature of demands as such. However, the methodological constraints we have placed upon our inquiry mean that we cannot assume anything about demands other than that we can think about them, and that this thought about them has its own specific structure. The seemingly paradoxical approach we will take is thus to think about thought generally by way of thinking about thought about demands specifically. We begin by thinking about thinking about what we should do.
Here is the crucial question around which all of this turns: Is there anything we should do? This raises the issue of what it would be to be bound to do something, or to be subject to a demand. Putting this in different terms: what would it be to have a practical commitment to do something?
Our methodological principle of principles is that of autonomy. We must assume that we are not bound by any practical commitment unless we undertake it ourselves in some way. This is to say that our practical commitments are always consequences of the choices that we make. However, what makes practical commitment different from choice and the desires that motivate it? The answer is that it provides us with a reason to act over and above our desires to do otherwise. This is the split between force of a commitment and its content. It is our choice that gives the commitment the force of a reason to act, but the content of the commitment, and thus the act demanded of us, cannot be determined by either our explicit choices or our implicit desires. The principle of autonomy is this: we are always the source of the force of our commitments, but we are not always the source of their content.
If there truly are demands of thought, then these must not be demands that we can simply choose to abandon without thereby abandoning the capacity for thought itself. They would be practical commitments we are bound to not by the specific choices we make, but by the act of choice itself: fundamental commitments that we could never shake. They would be conditions of the possibility of commitment as such. Put another way, these fundamental demands would specify the very structure of Freedom itself. We will call the project of uncovering these demands fundamental deontology. In pursuing an account of the conditions of the possibility of thought and action, it is equally a form of transcendental philosophy. The aim of the present work is to provide an outline of this project, and thereby also to begin it in ernest.
What follows is a summary of the various chapters. Each chapter addresses a particular concept (Value, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Freedom, and Justice) and provides a methodology for approaching it (Deontology, Epistemology, Aesthetics, Ethics, Psychology, and Politics). These chapters successively build upon one another in order to unveil ever more of the demands of thought. The overall aim of the book is to provide us with a unified framework for thinking about what is required of us as free thinking beings.
1. Value (Deontology)
The topic of this chapter is Value, which we define as whatever it is which provides us with reasons for action. It is under this general heading that we will differentiate between the practical commitments whose content exceeds our authority to specify it, and the choices and desires whose content is ours to specify as we wish, more or less. This enables us to further differentiate between kinds of practical commitment: individual tasks, joint tasks, and norms. These are distinguished on the basis of their content, which can only be explained in terms of their specific roles within practical reasoning, or the particular kinds of reasons for action they provide. In addition, we can distinguish between two types of force these commitments may have: institutional and transcendental. This is to be explained as the difference between those commitments whose force derives either from our own authority, or the authority of a community of which we are a member, and those commitments whose force derives from no authority of any kind. The latter are binding upon us simply insofar as we are able to bind ourselves to any other commitment, or insofar as we are free.
On this basis, we may introduce the fourfold root of autonomy. This is our answer to the question of whether there is anything we should do. It amounts to an existence proof that there are some practical commitments that we are bound by, simply insofar as we are capable of thought and action. This splits into four separate existence proofs, corresponding to the different kinds of practical commitments it demonstrates:-
1. The Primary Bind: we are bound by some transcendental norms.
2. The Secondary Bind: we are bound by some institutional norms.
3. The Tertiary Bind: we are bound by some transcendental joint tasks.
4. The Quaternary Bind: we are bound by some institutional joint tasks.
The point of this fourfold schema is merely to show that there are some practical commitments, but not which commitments they are. This is a matter of demonstrating that there are some things we should do, even though we have yet to demonstrate what they are: it is a matter of force rather than content. The challenge that we face is to determine the content of these commitments as best we can, by devising an adequate methodology for revealing them. We name the general discipline which studies practical commitments deontology, and the specific branch of it that deals with these core commitments fundamental deontology.
The crucial issue that must be tackled in order for this project to get off the ground is just how to understand differences between forms of Value. The distinctions between forms of practical commitments and the force they are subject to that we have already drawn are only one aspect of this. The important insight that must be acknowledged is that there are such things as defeasible reasons for action. These are reasons which motivate us to act in a certain way unless we have better reasons to do otherwise. The prevalence of such defeasible reasons for action is what constitutes the sheer plurality and complexity of forms of Value (e.g., legality, fashionability, politeness, etc.). What makes all of these differing forms of Value species of the same genus is that we can understand the relations of defeasibility between the reasons for action they provide. For example, the fact that, all else being equal, we should act on the basis of ethical motivations over aesthetic ones is what enables us to see both kinds of concern as forms of Value.
The topics of the remaining chapters will all be particular species of Value. The principal species are the classical trinity of values: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We will then break down Goodness into the subspecies of Freedom and Justice. Our aim will be to explain each of these by way of a certain form of reasoning to which it corresponds, and to explain the relations between them by way of the relations between these forms of reasoning. We will begin by discussing theoretical reasoning, which is governed by the value of Truth. This will in turn give us the resources we need to think about practical reasoning, which is governed by the values of Beauty and Goodness.
2. Truth (Epistemology)
The topic of this chapter is Truth, which we define as whatever we’re seeking in attempting to justify the claims we make, or in playing the game of giving and asking for reasons. Moreover, as the ideal that the process of justification aims at, it must be distinguished from any aspect of our actual practice of this process. This means that there is always some sense in which we can be wrong in taking our claims to be true: the possibility of truth implies the possibility of error. The question is simply how we are to describe the fine grained normative structure of the process of justification within which the ideal of Truth is implicit. We will do this by taking seriously the most challenging form of skepticism about the possibility of truth: Pyrrhonian skepticism.
This will provide us with our most important methodological tool, which we will call the deontological reduction. This is a direct parallel of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, with the crucial difference that it takes bindingness as its object rather than givenness. Like Husserl’s reduction, it comes in two distinct stages: a transcendental reduction and an eidetic reduction. The first reduction involves a bracketing of the truth of all claims we could make, with the exception of those claims that we cannot deny without falling into pragmatic contradiction. This gives us a procedure for describing the transcendental norms governing the process of justification itself: we begin with the minimal claim about the possibility of error already established, and then proceed by way of successive pragmatic contradictions to uncover those claims we cannot deny (or commitments we cannot abandon) without thereby undermining the possibility of error and thus the ideal of Truth itself. The second reduction is a localised operational truncation of particular forms of reasoning, which enables us to grasp the essential normative features of that localised form of thought. This is the move most famously deployed in Socratic dialectic: we bracket questions of which particular things are [good/wise/just/etc.] in order to inquire into the essence of [Goodness/Wisdom/Justice/etc.]. It is this secondary stage of deontological method which will be carried out in the remaining chapters.
The final thing that must be established in this chapter is that the distinction between different species of Value, and the different forms of reasoning that they correspond to, itself corresponds to a deeper distinction between species of Truth (objective (e.g. mathematical and empirical), and non-objective (e.g., transcendental and interpretational)). It is the fact that there are truths about values, and thus different types of truths about different types of values, that lies at the heart of the seemingly paradoxical approach we have taken up to this point. This means that the remaining chapters do not simply provide the taxonomy of Value, but also part of the taxonomy of Truth.
3. Beauty (Aesthetics)
The topic of this chapter is Beauty, which we define as that form of Value which motivates us independently of instrumental concerns. This is what Kant means when he says that Beauty is disinterested. In order to understand the nature of Beauty in more detail, we must explore an important insight of Plato regarding the genus of Value, before applying it to the species of Beauty as we have defined it. We will call this Platonic reflexivity, or the idea that the prevalence of Value (i.e., the fact that there is Value) is itself the exemplar of Value (i.e., what is most valuable), and furthermore that the exemplar of each principal species of Value is its own prevalence (e.g., that there is Truth is what is most true, that there is Beauty is what is most beautiful, and that there is Goodness is what is most good). This will enable us to further describe Beauty in terms of its role as the first stage in the genesis of Value.
4. Goodness (Ethics)
The topic of this chapter is Goodness, which we define as that form of Value which motivates us in the last instance. This is what Kant means when he ties Goodness to a categorical imperative. In order to understand the nature of Goodness in more detail, we must return the idea that the relationships between forms of Value is determined by the relations of defeasibility between the reasons for action they provide. It is on this basis that we will explore Kant’s understanding of hypothetical imperatives and their relation to the categorical imperative. This will enable us to further describe Goodness in terms of its relation to Beauty, as the second stage of the genesis of Value.
5. Freedom (Psychology)
The topic of this chapter is Freedom. Although this is a species of Goodness (and thus a subspecies of Value) must define it in a different way to Truth, Beauty and Goodness. This is because it is not attached to states of affairs in general, but to particular entities (agents) and events (actions). It must also be separated into qualitative and quantitative, and positive and negative varieties (allowing for quantitative positive freedom, qualitative negative freedom, etc.). In order to understand freedom in all its forms, we must understand the relationship between the demands of thought and its instantiation. We do this by examining the famous principle of ought implies can, and using it to sketch a picture of the essential functional capacities that a causal system would have to exhibit to be counted as an agent. The various distinctions between kinds of Freedom can be derived from this functional description, in terms of the way the normative and causal dimensions of agency interact.
6. Justice (Politics)
The topic of this chapter is Justice. Although this is viewed as a species of Goodness in opposition to Freedom, it is itself derived from Freedom. The crucial insight from which this derivation begins is that the functional description of agency provided in the last chapter is abstract enough to be recursively applied to agents in order to construct collective agents out of individual agents. This gives us a distinction between deontological composites and deontological monads, respectively. We are then confronted with the dual question of how the Freedom of individual agents is to be understood in relation to one another, and how the Freedom of collective agents is to be understood in relation to the Freedom of their parts (at all scales). We define Justice as the mereological ideal of collective Freedom: the maximisation of the Freedom of the the parts through maximising the Freedom of the whole, where the maximal whole is understood as what Hegel would call Absolute Spirit and the minimum parts are the deontological monads just described. Justice is a joint task we are all confronted with: the task of constructing out of ourselves collectives that maximise our individual freedoms.